These Kitchen Mistakes Could Make Your Family Sick

According to estimates by the CDC, 48 million people are infected by foodborne illness every year. Of these people, 128,000 need to be hospitalized and 3,000… Samantha Davis - April 7, 2022

According to estimates by the CDC, 48 million people are infected by foodborne illness every year. Of these people, 128,000 need to be hospitalized and 3,000 die. The bacteria that cause foodborne illness aren’t visible to the human eye, so people often overlook them when cleaning. While pregnant women, elderly people, young children, and people with weaker immune systems are more susceptible to food poisoning, anyone can become sick from it. Plus, there are more than 250 types of bacteria, parasites, and viruses that cause foodborne illness.

In addition to bacteria, mold and chemical exposure in the kitchen cause illness. Below, we’ll take a look at some common kitchen mistakes that could make your family sick. The CDC recommends proper cleanliness, separation of foods, cooking, and chilling foods. In addition to following these rules, things like changing your dish-washing routine, avoiding re-using hand towels, and other strategies will help keep the people in your life healthy. Keep reading to identify some mistakes you might be making that could be dangerous to your loved ones.

Your kitchen sponge is moist, porous, and creates the perfect conditions for mold and bacteria to thrive. Shutterstock.

1. Do Away with Your Dirty Kitchen Sponge

Your kitchen sponge is the perfect place for bacteria to grow. Research shows that an incredible 19.6 billion bacteria are living on the average kitchen sponge. It’s warm, wet, and comes into contact with bacteria from food, your skin, and kitchen counters. Plus, it’s made of porous materials and there are plenty of hidden areas that bacteria can grow. If you don’t have a dishwasher, the best way to clean your dishes is a brush. Dish brushes don’t hold liquid as well as a sponge, so they dry faster. Bacteria also live for a shorter period of time on brushes.

Some people also try microwaving their sponge with the hopes that getting it hot enough will kill the bacteria. Unfortunately, microwaving your kitchen sponge only kills the weaker strains of bacteria. Plus, it makes room for more bacteria (usually the stronger strains you couldn’t kill) to move through your sponge. For people that do want to use sponges, regular replacement is the only sure way to kill bacteria. Disinfecting a sponge by putting it in the laundry or dishwasher, microwaving it, or boiling it usually isn’t effective.

Paper towels are a much better alternative to cloth towels, which harbor bacteria from wiping up spills and water from your hands. Shutterstock.

2. Be Safe When Using Cloth Towels

Another area of your kitchen frequently contaminated with germs is your cloth towels. Think for a minute how many times you might wipe your hands on the towel after washing them, then use that same towel to wash different kitchen surfaces. Like kitchen sponges, cloth is the perfect material to absorb bacteria and keep it trapped. In one study, researchers learned that cloth towels can trap salmonella germs and allow them to grow overnight, even if the towel had been thoroughly washed and rinsed in the sink after handling.

Many people have started using paper towels in the kitchen instead. Since they are single-use, there’s a much lower risk of contamination with bacteria. Alternatively, designate a specific hand towel for drying hands and use paper towels to wipe up food and other messes. If you are going to use a cloth towel, be sure to only use it after your hands are clean and dry. Don’t handle it before washing your hands and be sure to change it out daily, since trapped water may result in mold growth.

You should never serve cooked food with the same utensils that were used to handle food before it was cooked. Shutterstock.

3. Never Re-Use Utensils After Handling Raw Meat

Another kitchen mistake that could make your family sick is using the same kitchen utensil through the cooking process. It’s not uncommon for people to use the same meat fork, tongs, spatula, or spoon for the whole cooking process. Even though your cooking utensil is exposed to a little heat while you’re stirring or flipping, it’s far from being enough heat to kill bacteria. For example, it takes at least ten minutes of cooking at a temperature of 167 degrees to kill salmonella bacteria, which is much longer that most people apply direct heat to their cooking utensils.

Instead, use a different utensil to serve food than you did while cooking it. It’s also important to be thorough when cleaning your utensils. Bacteria easily gets trapped in scratches and wear marks. It can also get trapped in any slots or holes in the utensils. If you are going to use the same utensil, be sure to wash it between cooking the raw food and serving cooked food. You should also always be sure to dry your utensils completely before putting them away. Moisture encourages the growth of mildew and bacteria.

Many people take their smart phones everywhere, which means you should keep them out of the kitchen to avoid spreading germs. Shutterstock.

4. Avoid Bringing Your Smart Phone in the Kitchen

People use smart phones and tablets for a lot of things these day. This includes using them for looking up recipes or providing entertainment when they’re in the kitchen. While smart phones are a convenient way to stay connected, however, they are also covered in germs. Research shows the average smart phone has 25,127 bacteria per square inch. Additionally, people rarely disinfect their phone as often as they should. This is problematic since many people take it everywhere with them- even into the bathroom. If you’re handling your phone after washing your hands, you are covering them in more germs.

Smart phones are really convenient for looking up recipes, but you should consider printing them out beforehand. Covering your phone in plastic while it’s in the kitchen is also an option. If you can’t do these things, you should sanitize your phone as frequently as you wash your hands. Experts recommend turning your device off and wiping with a cloth that has been misted with 70% alcohol to sanitize it. You should also wipe down your phone case and let both things dry before powering back on. Of course, default to manufacturer instructions if they are available.

Meat isn’t the only thing that needs to be cooked all the way through to destroy bacteria. You also need to cook frozen foods and leftovers to a safe internal temperature. Shutterstock.

5. Always Cook Food to the Right Temperature

Everyone knows that you need to cook raw meat like pork, chicken, and others to the proper internal temperature to kill bacteria and parasites. However, many people don’t know that even prepared, processed foods need to be cooked to the proper internal temperature. Bacteria doesn’t die once food is put in the freezer. Instead, the microorganisms that cause food illness are frozen. Once you warm them back up, the bacteria are re-activated. This is the reason it’s important to follow manufacturer recommendations for heating foods like hot pockets or pizza rolls.

In addition to heating frozen foods to the recommended temperature, leftovers should be heated thoroughly before you consume them. Microwaves do kill bacteria. However, microwaves are also known for heating food from the outside in. They may cause food to heat unevenly. When there are cold pockets in food, they may also harbor pockets of bacteria. You should always be sure microwaved food is cooked to at least 165 degrees internally. Heating on the stovetop or oven, or using a container with a lid to help steam food makes it easier for for food to cook evenly.

Food for someone who is immunocompromised should never be undercooked because their body is not strong enough to fight off remaining bacteria. Shutterstock.

6. Be Extra Cautious When Serving Food to Someone Who is Immunocompromised

For the most part, following safe preparation and cooking practices kills enough bacteria. Even when there are trace amounts left, the body’s immune system can handle processing them. This is the reason that people can eat their steak medium-rare or the yolky part of an egg while it’s runny. If you live with someone who is immunocompromised, however, it’s very important that their food is cooked all the way through so it can kill bacteria. Unlike the average person, someone who is immunocompromised may not be able to fight off those trace amounts of bacteria left behind after cooking.

The best way to eliminate this bacteria is to strictly adhere to guidelines regarding safe food preparation. For example, even red meats like steak should be cooked all the way through and they should not eat their egg yolks runny. Immunocompromised people should also avoid food consumed raw, like sushi or homemade mayonnaise or Ceasar salad dressing. Adhering to these guidelines and cooking food all the way through is the best way to protect someone who is immunocompromised from the dangers that lurk in the kitchen.

You should never lt leftovers sit at room temperature too long and you should avoid thawing meat on the counter. At room temperature, bacteria thrives. Shutterstock.

7. Avoid Storing Leftovers and Thawing Foods at Room Temperature

Bacteria thrives and multiplies at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re leaving your food to sit out at room temperature for a few hours before putting it away, you’re also putting your family at risk of foodborne illness. Food that is no longer being heated should be eaten or refrigerated within 2 hours. Additionally, if you’re on your way to a pot luck or gathering and the food is in the car or the hot sun, the window of safety drops to just one hour.

You also shouldn’t set out meat or other foods to thaw at room temperature. Since food thaws from the outside in, the inside may be frozen while bacteria on the outside of food starts to multiply once it reaches temperatures above 40 degrees. Instead, thaw food ahead of time using the refrigerator. You can also use the cold water method, which involves putting the food in the bag and putting it in cold water. Using the microwave to defrost is also an option and in a pinch, it’s even safe to cook foods from their frozen state.

Pre-rinsing your dishes might make your dishwasher’s cycle less effective. Shutterstock.

8. Stop Pre-Rinsing Your Dishes Before Loading Them in the Dishwasher

Pre-rinsing is something many people swear by. When dishwasher were a new thing, it was necessary to rinse those big chunks off so they didn’t clog the inner workings of the dishwasher. Now that technology has advanced, however, it’s actually recommended that you leave those food chunks on. Dish soap works by sticking to food so it can be rinsed away. If there isn’t any food to stick to, then the soap is going to be less effective. Pre-rinsing also removes particles that dishwashers detect to decide how long each cycle needs to run.

When you pre-rinse, it’s more likely that stuck-on foods and bacteria will be left behind. Many dishwashers today have a pre-rinse setting that you should be using instead of rinsing by hand. Rather than traveling through the smaller pipes, the water from this cycle likely travels through the garbage disposal or the larger pipes under the sink. Additionally, it’s important to let your dishwasher go through the whole cycle. Taking dishes out too early might stop them from being sterilized long enough to remove bacteria.

It’s important to be thorough when washing hands. You should even scrub under your nails with a brush when needed. Shutterstock.

9. Wash Hands Before, During, and After Food Prep

Even though proper hand washing is taught from a young age, the recent pandemic brought into light how many people aren’t doing it. When you are preparing food, you need to wash your hands before you get started, several times during, and after you are done. During, you should be washing your hands every time that you switch between handling food items. This means you don’t cut up vegetables and then handle raw meat. You should also wash the surfaces these foods came into contact with.

In addition to washing your own hands after food prep, your whole family should be encouraged to clean up before dinner. Proper hand washing involves getting hands wet with warm water, adding soap, and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds. You should wash your palms, the backs of your hands, and under your fingernails during this time. Using a brush may be helpful to scrub under longer nails. Then, rinse with warm water before drying your hands. Supervise young kids washing their hand and be sure they are being thorough. Creating good hand washing habits when they are young makes it easier for them to follow them in the future.

The steps to prevent cross-contamination should start at the grocery store. Shutterstock.

10. Avoid Cross-Contamination at All Steps

Cross-contamination describes transferring bacteria from one food to another. Some common reasons this happens is because of cutting vegetables and meats on the same surfaces, bagging meat with other foods, or even storing meats too close to other foods in the refrigerator. Avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen starts when you’re at the grocery store. You should always keep seafood, raw meat, and eggs separate from all your ready-to-eat foods when bagging groceries. Additionally, don’t set meat bags on top of produce, dairy, and other fresh food items in your cart or the trunk.

Once you are home and storing your food, be sure to store meat away from other foods. It should be stored in a separate drawer or in the bottom of the fridge, where it is not going to contaminate other foods if it leaks. Additionally, you should have separate cutting boards for meat and produce items. Even washing in between doesn’t always get food germs out, especially since cutting boards usually have slices in them where knives have been used. These cut marks can also trap bacteria.

You should always wash your fruits and vegetables, even the ones that are pre-bagged and pre-washed.

11. Always Wash Your Produce

It’s easy to grab a handful of fruit and go or to forget to wash produce before cooking. However, even when you buy produce that has been washed, bagged, and sealed before it gets to the supermarket should be washed first. When you touch the outside of the bag and then handle the produce, any germs that were on the bag are now on your fruits and veggies. Produce also may be contaminated before being packaged. For example, foods like Romaine lettuce are frequently recalled because of exposure to E. coli, listeria, and other diseases.

Many stores sell organic solutions made for sanitizing fruits and vegetables. You can also wash produce using a solution of vinegar and water, though the FDA recommends gently rubbing produce for about 20 seconds under warm water. You should use a clean brush to scrub harder produce and pat it dry with a paper towel after washing. When eating lettuce, always remove the first few outer leaves to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. You should also always wash produce before cutting and avoid setting in on your cutting surface until it has been washed.

Meat packaged by today’s standards does not need washed before use. It’s best to avoid this practice, which easily spreads dangerous bacteria around your kitchen. Shutterstock.

12. Don’t Wash Your Meat

Whether you should wash your meat or not is another controversial kitchen topic. Several decades ago, it was common for people to butcher and prepare their own meat. Therefore, washing removed any leftover blood, slime, fat, and other leftover bits. In most cases, people who wash meat do it because they were taught to do it that way by older relatives. Meat prepared and packaged today does not need to be washed. It has already been cleaned of visible blood and goo. Plus, foodborne bacteria is killed during the cooking process.

Not only is it unnecessary, but research from the USDA shows washing your meat in the sink spreads bacteria anywhere contaminated water drops land. Your entire kitchen sink ends up covered in salmonella and other foodborne bacteria, as do nearby countertops, faucets, walls, and dishes. Some people also use soap or other chemicals to wash meat, but this is also dangerous and can make you sick. If you are going to use a brine, it’s okay to soak meat in a bowl. Discard of it carefully when you’re finished and properly wash and sanitize your sink and equipment.

Dented cans, freezer burnt foods, and otherwise damaged goods might hide bacteria, so it’s best to avoid them when you’re shopping. Shutterstock.

13. Avoid Damaged Foods

Many people give produce a once-over before buying and look for bruises, rotten areas, and other damage. Just like you would avoid buying bruised or otherwise-compromised produce, you should also avoid buying other foods that have been compromised. Stores sometimes offer a discount on these foods, since it’s better for them to make a little money than throw the food out. Unfortunately, there’s also risks with these damaged food. Foods in damaged containers may be exposed to air and bacteria that could ultimately make your family sick.

When buying canned foods, avoid those that are dented or swollen. Swelling in foods indicates the presence of gas, which happens once food starts to spoil and go bad. Canned foods are also likely to contain botulism, which is one of the most dangerous types of foodborne illness. Heating food isn’t always enough to kill this strong bacteria, except when cooking it at a high temperature for a long period of time. You should also inspect frozen foods for freezer burn or ice crystals, which might indicate food that has been left out and re-frozen or otherwise contaminated.

Your kitchen sink has more bacteria than the average toilet and it isn’t visible to the naked eye. Pexels.

14. Regularly Clean Your Kitchen Sink

Research shows that the sink in your kitchen usually contains more harmful bacteria and more fecal matter than your bathroom toilet. People use their kitchen sinks frequently in the home, whether they are preparing meals, washing dishes, or just washing off their hands. Surprisingly, all these germs linger in the sink. It’s not enough to just wash your hands over the sink or fill it with water when doing dishes. This might remove some germs, but you’re likely also adding bacteria from your hands, dishes, and dish sponge.

Your kitchen sink should be sanitized at least once per day. Use hot, soapy water and a brush to clean it before washing. You’ll also want to be sure you don’t put this same brush or cleaning sponge back in the sink once you’re done. After scrubbing, rinse the sink completely clean. Then, you’ll be ready to disinfect for stronger bacteria like salmonella. You can use a sanitizer, a disinfectant solution made of bleach and water, or another natural disinfectant if you’d like.

You should do a full clean out of your fridge every 3-4 months and spot clean as needed in between. Shutterstock.

15. Remember Bacteria Can Grow in the Refrigerator Too

Another place bacteria might be lurking is in the refrigerator. Even when you keep your eggs, meat, and seafood separate from prepared foods and produce items, it’s very easy for bacteria to end up on the shelves of your refrigerator. This is because refrigerators are not cold enough to kill bacteria. Think about how many times something like a gallon of milk is handled, set on surfaces like the counter, and then put in the fridge. Refrigerators need cleaned regularly like any other kitchen item. Deep clean your fridge every three months and any time there is a spill.

In addition to taking care of bacteria, regular cleaning stops the growth of mold and mildew. Mildew is especially common in areas of moisture. Over-filling your fridge causes mildew growth, too. The best way to clean is to take everything out of the refrigerator and store in a cooler while you’re cleaning. Then, wash all the shelves with hot, soapy water and dry them. Once clean, disinfect with a solution of 1 gallon water to 1 tablespoon of bleach. Let everything dry before putting your food back.

Your handles and light switches are something easily overlooked when cleaning, even though they are prime areas for bacteria. Shutterstock.

16. Don’t Forget to Clean Your Handles

Some other commonly overlooked areas during kitchen clean up are places like the faucets, refrigerator and oven handles, cupboards, and trash can lids. Sanitizing these frequently-handled areas is important, especially since some of the stronger strains of bacteria like salmonella and E.coli can life on surfaces for hours and Hepatitis A lives for months. It’s important as you are cleaning and sanitizing your kitchen that you don’t forget these frequently handled areas. You should also wash your sink handles frequently while washing, especially if you touch them to turn the water on before washing your hands.

To properly remove bacteria from surfaces in the kitchen, the USDA recommends a “one-two punch” that involves first cleaning the areas and then disinfecting them. Cleaning surfaces with warm, soapy water first helps remove dirt, grease, and some bacteria. It also helps get down to the surface, so when you do disinfect it’s going to be more effective. You can use a commercially made sanitizer or make your own by diluting bleach with water. Some people also use vinegar, which is a natural disinfectant.

Multi-use items like can openers and re-usable shopping bags come into contact with a lot of bacteria. They should be cleaned regularly. Shutterstock.

17. Regularly Clean Multi-Use Items Too

There are many kitchen items people might use more than once before washing them. For example, something like the can opener isn’t necessarily considered “dirty” after it’s been used to open a can. However, that can opener has come into contact with the inside and outside of can lids, plus any liquid near the top of the can. Each time that you puncture a new can, you’re also spreading bacteria. For this reason, even multi-use items should be sanitized regularly to prevent the spread of germs.

Another multi-use item people are guilty of not washing as often as they should is re-usable shopping bags. In addition to coming into contact with anything on the outside of your groceries, these shopping bags are heavily handled. They are set in shopping carts covered in germs and then set down on your counters at home. These are easy to clean, since you can just wash them after a few uses. If you are not going to wash them, however, it’s best to throw them out.

Being familiar with safe food storage times and knowing when to throw food out will stop your family from eating it and getting sick. Shutterstock.

18. Be Aware of Safe Food Storing Times

In addition to promptly storing leftover foods, it’s important that you consume these foods in a timely manner. Even when it’s tempting to throw together dinner with whatever you have, be sure you aren’t throwing together foods that are going to get your family sick. You cannot always rely on your sense of smell, taste, and sight to know when bacteria has contaminated food. Instead, it’s best to familiarize yourself with safe cold food storage times. You may also want to label certain foods, so it’s easier to keep track of how long it’s been in the refrigerator.

Many products come with sell by or best by dates, however, these aren’t always indicators of how long something will stay good. Once something is opened, air and bacteria are introduced to the food/liquid. For example, lunchmeat that isn’t opened is good for up to 2 weeks, while lunch meat from the deli or meat that has been opened should be consumed within 3-5 days. As a general guideline, you should also be sure to consume leftovers within 3-4 days of storing them in the refrigerator. Freezing foods you don’t think you will eat is also an option.